Brief reviews of books by contemporary authors I read this month — along with photos of what I ate while reading. The list is ordered by the level my enjoyment:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (Viking, 1962)
“Nothing was orderly, nothing was planned; it was not like any other day.”
Two sisters live with their invalid uncle in an isolated mansion, reviled by their neighbors because of a mysterious poisoning that killed off all the sisters’ other family members six years ago. This novel takes a fascinating look at the intense gossip and meanness of small towns. I loved the vengeful anger and quiet violence in little girls, the comforting pull of solitude. Highly recommended!
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (Viking, 1959)
“I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster … and the monster feels my tiny movements inside.”
Four “researchers” of supernatural phenomena have arrived at Hill House to study hauntings — and one of them Nell, starts really cracking up. My favorite part of this novel was not being able to tell whether the scary happenings were ghosts in the house or the figments of Nell’s imagination. Highly recommended Halloween reading.
You Are Having a Good Time by Amie Barrodale (FSG, 2016)
“The thing about a dark truth is it is indistinguishable from doubt.”
I’ve loved Amie Barrodale’s stories for a long time so I was glad this collection of her work finally came out earlier this year. Amie’s stories are mostly of slightly strange, uncomfortable love affairs and the murky, intense feelings they bring up — an odd drunken encounter with a musician that turns into a bizarre years-long email friendship, a novelist whose work your married lover recommended suddenly showing up at your yoga retreat. It really captures the discomfiting, unsettled, messy aspects of modern love.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang (in the US, Hogarth, 2016)
“It’s your body, you can treat it however you please. The only area where you’re free to do just as you like.”
The Vegetarian shows interesting connections between women’s rights and eating disorders — a young girl physically abused by her father later becomes anorexic, gaining control over the one part of life where she can exert some agency. I recently read — in Glamour of all places — that South Korea’s female president hasn’t done much for women’s rights; the country ranks 115 of 145 countries for equality according to the World Economic Forum — a stat as disturbing as this novel. A fascinating and disturbing book that delves into real sociopolitical concerns.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday, 2016)
“But we have all been branded even if you can’t see it, inside if not without….”
Reading The Underground Railroad was an unexpected exercise in gratitude for me — for all the rights and privileges and comforts I simply take for granted. This novel follows a woman called Cora who escapes from her life as a slave to make a perilous journey to freedom. There’s really painful torture, unimaginable hardships, as well as remarkable resilience and hope. Those emotions feel real, but Colsin Whitehead’s added an imaginative twist: an actual secret railroad network that transports slavery escapees. Beyond the illuminating look at slavery and its legacy in the US, this novel made poignant to me the inevitability of change and upheaval in life and the fact of life’s ephemerality.
Knives, Forks, Scissors, Flames by Stefan Kiesbye (Panhandler Books, 2016)
“What had the children really done with the body?”
New out this month, modern gothic novel is set in a tiny German town. On the outside, everyone’s down to earth and sweet. But underneath the town’s placid veneer roils a strange myth that leads to beatings, murders, and even a Cask of Amontillado-style live burial. Benno, the protagonist, has gotten strangely obsessed with a local murder — while his wife’s getting really religious after going off her meds. Trouble ensues. The book’s full of disturbing images: dead crows, horse placenta hung from trees, wounded dogs. Read it if you like creepy German stories! Earlier: Five Firsts: Stefan Kiesbye on finding the right indie press for your book.
The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows edited by Marjorie Sandor (St. Martin’s, 2015)
“Then, at dawn, I would hear the meat being sawed and hacked.”
Halloween month seemed a good time to take on The Uncanny Reader, a 500+ page anthology of spooky stories, from Poe to Aimee Bender. I enjoyed rereading stories I love (Kafka’ “The Stoker,” Shirley Jackson’s “Paranoia”) and discovering new writers like Felisberto Hernandez. If you have plans to teach a spooky literature class, this one would make a good textbook.
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